Monday, October 4, 2010

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself – A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky

In 2009 Book Goddesses member (and my personal barometer of “cool”), Loralee Martin, picked one of David Foster Wallace’s books Consider the Lobster as our book-of-the-month selection.  She chose this in remembrance of Wallace who had recently committed suicide.  I enthusiastically agreed, all the while thinking, “Who the hell is David Foster Wallace?”  Turns out if you don’t know of Wallace nor have read his book Infinite Jest, you’re probably from the shallow end of the gene pool or at the very least not well-read.  Time magazine chose Infinite Jest as one of the “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” covering the period 1923–2006; so of course I had to learn as much about him as quickly as possible.  Fate helped out when David Lipsky, author of Absolutely American and contributing editor to Rolling Stone and a ton of other publications, published his strange but interesting verbatim five-day interview with Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

When I say verbatim, I literally mean verbatim.  Evidently Lipsky took the tape-recorded interviews to a stenographer and said, “transcribe this please;” added a few comments of his own (very few) and voilà the book was born. Don’t get me wrong.  Lipsky is a smart writer and an interesting guy himself, but I couldn’t make out if this book was opportunism (riding on the rubberneckers of Wallace’s suicide – mea culpa) or just a really interesting homage to a brilliant but tortured soul (a description that has become a cliché). Click on Read More Below...

Here’s the deal.  I found the format a surprisingly thought-provoking challenge. Writing is typically a concise delivery of message. Conversation is a lot of hemming and hawing, interruption, backing up, unfinished sentences and mental leaps.  All of which are supported by facial expressions and the other contextual things that make conversation not seem near as surreal as reading a verbatim transcription of those conversations. However, there were some messages that came across in the delivery that I think would have been lost in editing.  For example, Wallace would start to answer a question and say, “turn the tape off,” draft an answer in his head, then turn the tape back on to record the answer he wanted.

Without a doubt there were some breath-catching quotes in there. Wallace’s writing is full of those too. My favorite, probably because I fancy myself as a writer, is when he said, “…and the trick about that stuff is to have it be honest, but also have it be a lot more interesting … it’s about how to be honest with a motive.”

The pivot point for the entire book seemed to be Wallace’s fixation with what I’d call the “perils of popularity.”  He went on and on about his fear of fearing that he wouldn’t be good enough after the phenomenal success of Infinite Jest, and/or that it would change him somehow and not for the betterHe really fought against getting tangled up in all that, and it seemed the harder he thrashed the worse it became.

There is one last thing.  I don’t think that Wallace was a victim of his brilliance and his drive for perfect writing (both of which were definitely manifest in his persona).  I think he died because the doctors couldn’t get his depression medication right, which is not so dramatic as thinking that he ended it all because he couldn’t reconcile his life.  Wallace was a literary giant who knew more about how to write about how we think than his doctors did about how to medically control his thinking.  If you want to know more about David Foster Wallace, read something written by him and then read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

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